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Research That's Out Of This World!
While this may look like the streamers at your last birthday party, what you are really looking at is the three-dimensional structure of a protein.
It turns out that outer space is a great place for forming large, pure protein crystals—a necessary first step for visualizing a protein in 3D. So, scientists are trekking beyond our orb to make these crystals. It’s a protein party in outer space and you’re invited.
This cool science image depicts a computer model of a protein which scientists were recently able to crystallize in space. Efforts to grow the same crystals on earth for 3D imaging were unsuccessful. Knowing the structure of this particular protein is important for future applications, such as anti-cancer drug development.
But why in orbit?
On earth, under the force of gravity, some proteins tend to form clumps or make structural imperfections while crystallizing. In outer space, where the force of gravity is nearly absent, it is much easier to coax proteins to form the big, perfect crystals necessary to make a 3D model.
Image courtesy NASA